Goodbye China – a land of contrasts

So, my time in Yunnan province in China is coming to an end. I leave today. I have so many lasting impressions and rectified so many misconceptions about this huge country:

o friendly, welcoming, people with many open mouths gazing at us, strange westerners

o excellent road and rail infra structure although all seem almost empty of traffic and most seem to anticipate future need

o bustly cities with a feel of affluence and a commonality with the west –  modern/western cars, shops, IPhones, fashion

o litter-free streets; here is always someone sweeping the streets & pavements in town and country

o rural areas are farmed by older peasant labour; terraces at this time of year grow rape seed, tobacco, wheat & broad beans

o spicy, tasty food although the locals in the countryside eat noodles as a staple food leaving the rice to sell as an income generator

o freedom & fostering of religious beliefs

o pride in traditions & customs amongst the old but not so much the young who claim their street cred in Nike trainers and Timberland boots

Some images which reflect the contrast that is this part of China:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jiejingu Festival of the Bai people

The Jiejingu Festival takes place just outside Weishan each year. The Bai people of Dali and Wieshan believe their gods & ancestors have a home in each town depending on the time of year. In March residents of Dali travel to Wieshan to invite the gods back to their town. They travel to West Big Temples where there are 24 temples scattered around a village on a piece of hillside outside Wieshan. Each temple is maintained by individual villages and houses their representatives for the duration of the 3/4 day festival and are dedicated to Buddism, Taoism, Confucianism, Ancestor-worship and the Nature God.

The day starts with rain. The bus slides its way up the mountain on a dirt track and parks outside the village. The temples are small and rather dilapidated with faded decorations and colours but rather mysterious in the dampness and swirling cloud.

Each one houses a small group of villagers, mostly grandmothers, from different districts who have been camping overnight for the last few days. Inside the confines of the temples offerings for the gods are prepared. These consist of large pans of dead chickens, simmering vats of braising pigs, saucepans full of hard-boiled eggs and incense sticks.

As the morning progresses these are paraded around the village to the different temples and shrines, accompanied by the smoke and explosions of rounds of fire crackers and the cries and calls of friends & family. Surely, after all this effort, gods & ancestors alike must feel welcome at this annual shindig.

At the same time a wonderful melodious chanting marathon begins where lines of women take up the rhythmic baton from each other while playing simple percussion instruments.

The men gather in groups watching the proceedings and do what men do best – sitting around looking important and smoking and playing cards.

The Dali brigade have made lunch for the few westerners there. Bowls of rice, sliced potatoes, spicy shredded carroty stuff, cheesy wafers and pork with chilies are laid before us with apologies for its simplicity due to the fact that they are far from home. Was fine by me.

The atmosphere was gloriously friendly with the locals almost applauding us for being there. Most wanted their photos taken and smiled with glee when describing the results, especially the group of smoking men, one of whom rushed indoors to find his big pipe so he could pose with it.

Later on in the day groups move off and dancing takes place in each of the temples before participants sink, exhausted, to the cobbled stones and blankets around sleep until dawn.

Tomorrow they will return to Dali with artefacts & memorabilia, feeling content.

 

Women’s Day in Weishan

Weishan old town is another grid patterned settlement at the centre of a modern metropolis with its canned music and bright shops. Today is Women’s Day. Two things happen around Weishan today. The first is that families, together, climb Weibaoshan Mountain just outside town. This has a collection of Taoist Temples dotted throughout the wooded climb to the top.

The other event is a food festival in Weishan’s old town. Once through North Gate it kicks off good and proper. The shops open out onto the street and stalls line the two main dragss that stretch from the four gates at each point of the compass. The smell and smoke from cooking fires, grilling and boiling anything from pigs to locusts to chicken feet, cover the streets with a sweet smelling haze which sets the hunger pangs off on a rollercoaster. Pancakes and sweets and dried fruits tantalize the taste buds. Enjoy the images and imagine the crowds  and the bustle and the smells.

Tomorrow a third event is held just outside town but more about that later.

 

Dali on Lake Ear – not the Salvador type

The town of Dali is situated between the mountains and Ear Lake where the locals can only fish between March & October due to its pollution levels. It’s called Ear Lake because it is in the shape of, you guessed it, an ear.

The town, and the neighbouring village of Xizhou, gently wake up with the dawn. People start to go about their business, collecting together in the parks and stirring around the market stalls.

Traditional houses, run by the government, are open to the public to remind locals and visitors what the past was like.

Chong Seng Temple is over 1,000 years old. It is the home to the Three Pagodas and countless other smaller structures. Yes, the outside pagodas lean as you see them. With the mountains as a backdrop the temple grounds provide space for relaxation and reflection.

Dali’s walls and gates were first built in 768. Today 60,000 people live within its boundary and service the touristy trap and high quality tat shops on its pedestrianised, cobbled streets. It seems highly unlikely but up to 40 million tourists are said to visit this place every year. I’ll be pleased to take my leave and get somewhere a bit more sincere and authentic.

 

The Shaxi Road Carnival

Every year the Bai people of Shaxi hold their Taizhi Festival. Taizhi is the local name for the Buddha Sakyamuni. The festival recreates the time when he, born as a prince into a royal family in northern India, leaves home on his journey to enlightenment.

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The four gates to the village are decorated .

The performers start to assemble in the courtyard of the small temple outside the walls. A meal is prepared for them and the older members of the community. Groups sit around smoking and chatting, adjusting costumes, cracking jokes and reliving past parades. The percussion band of bells and cymbals and tams celebrate within the temple and then come outside to kneel as they play and chant. Incense sticks and smouldering pine branches and cigarettes lick across the courtyard in swathes of blue smoke, combining with the smell of steaming soup and noodles to create a swirling current of smells and sounds.

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As the morning progresses the final adjustments are made. The members of the parade mix freely with their older friends. Cackling women laugh and giggle and playfully nudge each other. Men share cigarettes and tea and crack jokes at their pals in the parade. Spectators, mostly locals, start to gather around the square and to line the streets, iPhones & big lenses at the ready.

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An explosion of fire crackers signals the start of the parade and throughout the procession gives advance earning as it progresses around the village and through each of the four gates, led by the Shaxi version of the Horns of Plenty. Where all these people come from I do not know but it’s a wonderful occasion full of colour and noise and community.

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Why is it that folk in the poorest areas of the world really know how to party? Yunnan is the poorest and most ethnically diverse area of China. The vast majority of people here earn less than $150 a year. Yet smiles and laughter and pride are the order of the day.

 

Dusk in Shaxi

The small village of Shaxi is on the Tea and Horse Trail. I am here for the annual Taizhi Festival held by the local Bai people. I arrive in the late afternoon as the locals are closing up shop and returning from the fields. The village settles down for the evening and awaits the festivities in the morning.

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Yangtse Doodle Dandy

Lijiang slowly stirs as the sun comes up over the mountains surrounding the lake that feeds the canals that flow alongside the streets. The air is crisp, the light is clear, colours are bright, the place has a mellow feel as the town gently awakes.

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Then a short bus journey to the magnificent Yangtse, the third longest river in the world. At this time of year it is a bit deceptive as the monsoon rains have yet to arrive so the slow moving waters make their way through fertile, terraced banks and sand bars.

My first sight of the river is in its middle stage. Coming through the mountains on the new motorway – another amazing piece of construction across high peaks and deep valleys. The river appears through the bare trees as a wide ribbon of turquoise and brown glass.

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Moving upstream I take lunch at the First Bend of the Yangtse River where the local geology forces the south bound river into an almost 180° turn.

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From here it’s further upstream to Tiger Leaping Gorge where the river is forced into a fault line some 4,000 metres below the highest peaks. In places it is only 30 metres wide and the waters are a roaring, swirling, gushing torrent for several kilometres. Locals named it as the place where tigers could jump across the narrow gap.

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The road winds high up on the mountain side following the line of the river several hundred metres below with nothing between the wheels and the miniscule, watery line way, way below. Those of weak heart – avoid.

Tina’s Guest House is on the road, high up on the mountain side, half way through the gorge. Huge teeth of mountain dwarf the few outposts of humanity who try to stare out their huge Himalayan neighbours of stone and ice and power and age. The wind howls through the gorge and around the guest house creating a concerto of notes and movements. Inside is warm and nesty with hot water, comfy beds (with electric blankets!), beer, filter coffee, hearty food & good Wi-Fi. Bliss. The view from my room door:

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